Radicals in Robes? Check Out This Opinion on Whether Illegal Immigrants Can Sue

Slate's blog on legal issues.
April 1 2008 2:47 PM

Radicals in Robes? Check Out This Opinion on Whether Illegal Immigrants Can Sue

It's from December, but then we did not have this blog then. So forgive me for looking back a bit. But this decision is, after all, issued by a federal district court and written by the chief judge of the district no less  Although I had read about the decision, National Coalition of Latino Clergy v. Henry ,  I only actually read the opinion today. And it's pretty shocking, or so thinks me. 

The decision concerns a challenge by various anonymous illegal immigrants in Oklahoma claiming all manner of constitutional violations arising from various provisions of a new Oklahoma law restricting benefits and more to illegal immigrants. The court concludes that some of the plainitffs do satisfy the Article 3 injury in fact requirement—in other words, they have alleged a real injury (like being evicted by their landlords from their homes because of their illegal status) and thus they do present a case or controversy based on their specific allegations of being hurt. But that doesn't matter, the court goes on to say, because, according to the court, federal judges must consider whether they should be barred from being permitted to raise a constitutional claim for prudential reasons—i.e., ones of the Court's own discretionary crafting (though loosely based, of all things, on the Supreme Court's recent decision in the Pledge of Allegiance case!). After considering what prudence counsels, the court, per Judge Payne, chooses to slam shut the courthouse door. And why?

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Here's the Court:

"In focusing on the illegal alien Plaintiffs here, the Court is reminded that courts have customarily declined to entertain cases involving plaintiffs with 'unclean hands.' Precision Instrument Mfg. Co. v. Automotive Maintenance Machinery Co., 324 U.S. 806, 814, 65 S.Ct. 993, 89 L.Ed. 1381 (1945) . This equitable maxim-that 'he who comes into equity must come with clean hands'-is a judicial closing of the courthouse doors to those tainted with inequitableness or bad faith related to the matter in which they now seek relief. Id. In the present case, the Court is deeply concerned by the implications of the illegal Plaintiffs' admission of violations of federal immigration laws."

Judge Payne then goes on to say: " These illegal alien Plaintiffs seek nothing more than to use this Court as a vehicle for their continued unlawful presence in this country. To allow these Plaintiffs to do so would make this Court an "abetter of iniquity" and this Court finds that simply unpalatable."

  Recognizing thus might sound a bit harsh, Judge Payne adds this in a footnote:

The underlying illegality here—the admitted violations of federal immigration law—is directly, even causally, related to the injuries the illegal alien Plaintiffs ask this Court to remedy. A wholly different situation is presented by, for example, an illegal alien negligently injured in a car accident. In that case, the illegal alien plaintiff could certainly bring suit to recover for their injuries because their illegal presence in this country is in no way related to their negligence cause of action. Similarly, an illegal alien criminal defendant deprived of certain due process rights could certainly challenge that deprivation because the injury in that case would be unrelated to the defendant's status as an illegal alien.

But wait, what about Plyler v. Doe , where the court held that illegal immigrants could challege state and local laws depriving them of benefits? Not to worry.   That's plainly a different case. Judge Payne again:

The Court would perhaps reach a different conclusion if this case involved children plaintiffs whose unlawful presence in this country was involuntary. See Plyler, 457 U.S. at 220 . Indeed, the Plyler Court made it clear that the result in that case was predicated, in large part, on the fact that the illegal alien children plaintiffs' unlawful presence in the country was not of their own volition.

 Just to top it all of, Judge Payne defends federal courts'  right to invoke a prudential limit right up front with this contention:  

While the situation here is vastly more benign, the Court can envision a scenario where a foreign member and supporter of a known terrorist organization could enter the country illegally, make their way to Oklahoma, anonymously-to avoid arrest by federal authorities-file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Okla. Stat. tit. 21, § 1268, et. seq. (the "Oklahoma Antiterrorism Act"), admit in their lawsuit that they are in violation of multiple federal anti-terrorism statutes, and expect this Court to entertain their challenge to the state anti-terrorism law designed to bolster the federal law. Surely this Court would not be required to allow that anonymous Plaintiff to bring suit.

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